Monday, 31 March 2008

Trail and ultrarunning

Trail running has been in my mind - more than usual - this past week.

It started when I separated the listings of trail running events from the adventure racing calendar. This weekend I built a mini-site to represent trail running in South Africa and I started reading "Running through the wall: Personal encounters with the ultramarathon" by Neal Jamison. It is a collection of short stories by ultra runners of their experiences at US events - and ultrarunning in general. My friends Michael and Heather Graz lent the book to me so that I could read the two stories on the Barkley Marathon in Tennesse, which they ran a part of this past weekend. In this book I found a piece by AR guru, Ian Adamson on his ultra experiences and the relationship of off-road ultra running to adventure racing.

I've always believed that strength on foot (and navigation) correlates to adventure racing success. Distance races - and Ironman too - are won and lost on the run. Pace, endurance and foot condition being major determinants of success or failure.

In his piece, "Adventures in ultrarunning", Ian Adamson says, "Ultrarunning is without question the most feared aspect of adventure racing. Athletes learn quickly that their feet are susceptible to being ravaged when hiking and running, and television coverage inevitably includes scenes of blistered, battered and bloody feet". He then discusses his introduction to ultradistance events; first a 70-mile overnight kayak race, then a 24hr Rogaine, then an adventure race and then an ultradistance run.

He makes a good point about people's understanding of ultrarunning vs adventure racing: "Most people can relate more to adventure racing than to ultrarunning. It seems that the team element and exotic locations are easier for the viewing public to understand. Little do most people realise that adventure racing is ultrarunning on steroids with a few interesting embellishments."

In the foreword to the book, Don Allison, Editor of Ultrarunning Magazine, says "behind every participant in every race there is a story. Behind every runner, there is a history that leads them to the starting line of an ultramarathon".

At school I was a 100m and 200m sprinter. In Standard 9 I started running road races, encouraged by an athletics teammate and his road running dad. 10km and 15km events were my game. 7-years would pass before I'd run my first 21km and even a few years later running an ultra had never crossed my mind.

In 2001 I started doing some odd freelance writing for the short-lived Adventure Zone magazine. I'd just returned from Camel White Water on the Zambezi when I got a call from the editor, Nicola, to ask whether I was going to Augrabies and whether I'd do a review for them on a new bivvy bag. There was an AR happening near Cape Aughulas so I figured this is what she was talking about. She referred me to the bivvy bag guy. He referred me to the event organiser.

The event turned out to be the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, a 250km, 7-day self-sufficient staged foot race in the sweltering Upington/Augrabies area. The race was starting 7-days later. I said "Yes" and a week later found myself at the starting line of an event that would change my competitive focus.

This event remains the toughest event I have ever run; the heat, the miggies and the sand made it difficult. The same race in winter months would be considerably easier. It was here that I discovered it is possible for a human to consume 15-litres of water a day and that painful feet can be run on - for hours - with no long-term repercussions.

* Photo: On a most-welcomed massage bed at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme. Photo from KAEM

I spent the first few days walking mostly, chatting to other runners and even tagging along at the back helping the sweep to pick up the route markers. Day 5/6 was the ultradistance stage - around 80km - and we began the stage on the afternoon on Day 5. This means that you take advantage of the cooler night-time temperatures on this longest stage.

I started out with some guys at the back; the one fellow was suffering terribly from ITB inflammation. It took us a painful 2-hours to reach the 10km aid station. My feet were already swollen and in agony and I knew that I did not want to spend another 14-16 hours on them.

I said my farewells to the guys and started running. With only one day's food rations, some snacks and little clothing in my backpack, it was light - perfect for running.

My early strategy was to walk the hills and run the flats and downs but after an hour I was running everything, checking in at the aid stations every 1h10; a very easy, comfortable and sustainable 7min/km pace. The most difficult part was stopping at the aid stations to refill my hydration pack; starting again brought on "Little Mermaid syndrome", where every step feels like you are walking on glass.

I reached the end of the stage at about 05h30 on the morning of Day 6. I was totally hyped after running continuously for about 7-hours, straight through the night. I'd never thought that I wouldn't be able to run 70km in one go... I'd just never considered doing it.

This run completely altered my frame of reference and that night was liberating. It gave me a love for ultrarunning and specifically for running on my own, at night and over many days.

I have since run a number of staged ultras and off-road ultras in SA and abroad. I've even run a 12hr circuit race - through the night - on a 1km loop. I logged 98km and loved every minute. Rogaines are also a favourite and I'm so looking forward to the 24hr World Rogaine Champs in Estonia in Sept08, which I'm running with my friend, Heather. Understandably, my favourite AR discipline is trekking.

Ultrarunning may not be for everyone but I can suggest that you give at least one event a shot. If you like it, you'll know and there are many events for you to enter. If you don't, then you'll also know that it isn't your thing.

I'm glad I accepted that first invitation because it changed my perspective on distance, taught me that I can run any distance I want to and it revealed the rewarding World of off-road ultrarunning to me.


Anonymous said...

Very good almost had me convinced, but Nah... I don't think so. I suffered doing the Comrades, the 42km at Iron Man and any running distance further than 21kms. I think I would enjoy trail runs not in excess of 20km....anything furhter than that, well, that is when I take out my mountain bike :)
I might just read the book though.

coydogheath said...

i'm so glad you started, without you what would hawaii have been? and i think back and think oh what hawaii could have been?

adventurelisa said...

Heya Anon,
To confess - I've only run one proper road marathon (back in 2000!) and I've never done Comrades.
If I can add a last tone of conviction... the reason why I really like off-road ultras is not just for the views and locations; the races are more gentle on your joints (varied terrain and gradient and more cushioning) and walking on sections is a given ;) - Lisa